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Chris Nickson

BRASS LIVES . . . Between the covers

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The prolific and ever-reliable Yorkshire author Chris Nickson has been writing his Tom Harper series since 2014 when he introduced the Leeds copper in Gods of Gold. Since then he has stuck to the  theme of metal in the book titles, and now we have Brass Lives. Harper is now Deputy Chief Constable of the city where we first met him as a young detective in the 1890s.

As is customary, the action doesn’t stray much beyond the city and its surrounding (and rapidly diminishing) countryside, but a slightly exotic element is introduced by way of two American gangsters. One, Davey Mullen, was born in Leeds, but emigrated across the Atlantic, where he has found infamy and wealth as a New York gangster. He has returned to his home town to visit his father. Louis Herman Fess, on the other hand has no interest in Leeds other than the fact that it is the current whereabouts of Mullen. Fess is a member of the delightfully named Hudson Dusters gang. They shot rival hoodlum Mullen eleven times, but he survived, and it seems as if Fess has come to West Yorkshire to resolve unfinished business. When Fess is found shot dead, Mullen is the obvious suspect, but try as they may, Harper and his team can find no evidence to link Mullen to the killing.

BrassPolitics are never far away in Chris NIckson novels, and in this case it is the enthusiasm of his delightful wife, Annabelle, for the Suffragist cause that takes centre stage. Note the word ‘Suffragist’ rather than ‘Suffragette’, a term we are more familiar with. The Suffragists were the earliest group to seek emancipation and electoral parity, and they believed in the power of persuasion, debate and education, rather than the direct action for which the Suffragettes were later known. Annabelle has always been careful not to embarrass her husband by falling foul of the law, but she plans to march alongside other campaigners in a march which is shortly due to enter Leeds. (See footnote * for more details) Annabelle’s plans are, however, thwarted at the last moment by a cruel  twist of fate.

There is more murder and mayhem on the streets of Leeds and Tom Harper finds himself battling to solve perhaps the most complex case of his career, made all the more intractable because he faces a personal challenge more daunting than any he has ever faced in his professional life. Guns have played little part in Harper’s police career thus far, but the theft of four Webley revolvers – plus ammunition – from Harewood Barracks, and the subsequent purchase of the guns by members of the Leeds underworld, adds a new and dangerous dimension to the case.

Nickson’s love for his city – with all its many blemishes – is often voiced in the thoughts of Tom Harper. Here, he declines the use of his chauffeur driven car and opts for Shanks’s Pony:

“A good walk to Sheepscar. A chance to idle along, to see things up close rather than hidden away in a motor car where he passed so quickly. All the smells and sounds that made up Leeds. Kosher food cooking in the Leylands, sauerkraut and chicken and the constant hum of sewing machines in the sweatshops. The malt from Brunswick brewery. The hot stink of iron rising from the foundries and the sewage stink of chemical works and tanneries up Meanwood Road. Little of it was lovely. But all of it was his. It was home.”

Harper, rather like WS Gilbert’s Ko-Ko, has a little list. It contains all the victims – and possible perpetrators – of the spate of crimes connected to Davey Mullen. One by one, through a mixture of persistence, skill and good luck, he manages to put a line through most of them by the closing chapters of Brass Lives. The book ends, however, on a sombre note, rather like a funeral bell tolling: it warns of a future that will have devastating consequences not only for Tom Harper, his family and his colleagues, but for millions of people right across Europe.

I believe that this series will be seen by readers, some of whom are still learning to read, as a perfect sequence that epitomises the very best of historical crime fiction. The empathy, the attention to detail, and the raw truth of how our ancestors lived will make the Tom Harper novels timeless. Brass Lives is published by Severn House in hardback, and is available now. It will be out as a Kindle in August. For reviews of other novels in this excellent series, click on the graphic below.

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*The Great Pilgrimage of 1913 was a march in Britain by suffragists campaigning non-violently for women’s suffrage, organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Women marched to London from all around England and Wales and 50,000 attended a rally in Hyde Park.

TO THE DARK . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2021-01-03 at 21.02.58I am delighted to say that my first review for 2021 is a new book by the reliably excellent story-teller, Chris Nickson. For those new to his books, he is a widely travelled former music journalist, who has rubbed shoulders with some of the big names in rock, but now pursues a rather more sedentary lifestyle in the Yorkshire city of Leeds. When he is not tending his treasured allotment, he writes historical novels, based around crime-solvers across the  centuries, most of them based in Leeds.

You can click the link to check out his late 19th century novels featuring the Leeds copper Tom Harper, but his latest book takes us back a little further, to Georgian times. Leeds is undergoing a violent transformation from being a bustling, but still largely bucolic centre of the wool trade, to a smoky, clattering child of the Industrial Revolution.

There are fortunes to be made in Leeds, but crime is still crime, and Simon Westow is known as a thief-taker. Remember, this is before the emergence of a regular police force, and what law there is is enforced by (usually incompetent) town constables, and men like Westow who will recover stolen property – for a fee.

the-darkWestow is a man who has survived a brutal upbringing as an institutionalised orphan, and there is not a Leeds back alley, courtyard or row of shoddily-built cottages that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t work alone. He has an unusual ally. We know her only as Jane. Like Westow, this young woman has survived an abusive childhood, but unlike Westow – who isn’t afraid to use his fists, but is largely peaceable – Jane is a killer. She carries a razor sharp knife, and uses it completely without conscience if she is threatened by men who remind her of the degradation she suffered when younger.

When a petty criminal is found dead in a drift of frozen snow, Westow frets that he will be linked with the murder as, only a week or so earlier, he had completed a lucrative assignment that involved returning to their owner stolen goods that had come into the hands of the dead man. Instead of being harassed by the lazy and vindictive town constable, Westow is asked to try to solve the crime. It seems that two aristocratic officers from the town’s cavalry barracks might be involved with the killing, and this sets Westow a formidable challenge, as the soldiers are very much a law unto themselves. Meanwhile a notebook has been found which is connected to one of murdered criminal’s associates, but it reveals little, as it is mostly in code. Someone cracks the cipher for Westow, but he is little the wiser, especially when the text contains the enigmatic phrase ‘To The Dark.’

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The discovery of a stolen handwritten Book of Hours, potentially worth thousands of gold sovereigns, further complicates the issue for Westow, and when the seemingly invincible Jane suffers a crippling injury, his eyes and ears on the Leeds streets are severely diminished. Still, the significance of ‘To The Dark’ escapes him, and when his life and those of his wife and children are threatened he is forced to face the fact that this seemingly intractable mystery may be beyond his powers to solve.

As ever with Chris Nickson’s novels we smell the streets and ginnels of Leeds and breathe in its heady mixture of soot, sweat and violence. In one ear is the deafening and relentless collision of iron and steel in the factories, but in the other is the still, small voice of the countryside, just a short walk from the bustle of the town. Nickson is a saner version of The Ancient Mariner. He has a tale to tell, and he will not let go of your sleeve until it is told. To The Dark is published by Severn House and is out now.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Historical Crime

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All historical crime writers have two main tasks; first, to pose a plausible mystery, whether that is a murder to be solved or a conspiracy to be unraveled; second, they have to do their period research, and get it spot on, otherwise there will be an endless queue of sharp-eyed nit-pickers who will be ready to pounce on the slightest inaccuracy or anachronism. The very best of these writers have a third skill- and that is to weave the first two tasks together into a seamless cloth so that the reader is back in time, be it fifty, one hundred, or three hundred years ago, and completely at one with the protagonists of the story. Here are four historical crime novels that I have loved during 2020. To read the full review, just click the title.

THE MOLTEN CITY by CHRIS NICKSON

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THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA by RN MORRIS

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THE TAINTED by CAUVERY MADHAVAN

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BEST HISTORICAL CRIME 2020
THE NIGHT RAIDERS by JIM KELLY

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 18.32.03I have long been a fan of Jim Kelly’s other two series, the Philip Dryden books and the Peter Shaw stories which, although firmly set in the present day, always feature plot lines where history has an unpleasant habit of intruding on the present. With this third set of books – set in 1940s Cambridge – we are ‘in’ history, albeit one which is in living memory for many people. Detective Inspector Eden Brooke is a fascinating character. Physically damaged and mentally scarred by his horrific treatment as a WW1 prisoner of war, he does his job thoughtfully and with great sensitivity as he watches civilian Cambridge struggle to come to terms with what it really means to be at war. In the earlier books in the series, we are in the so called  ‘phony war’, but as the title suggests, Night Raids sees the full horror of total war come to the streets of the city. For anyone new to Jim Kelly’s books, you can learn more by clicking on his photograph (above right).

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THE MOLTEN CITY . . . Between the covers

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TMCWe first met Leeds policeman Tom Harper in Gods of Gold (2014) when he was a young CID officer, and the land was still ruled by Queen Victoria. Now, in The Molten City, Harper is a Superintendent and the Queen is seven years dead. ‘Bertie’ – Edward VII – is King, and England is a different place. Leeds, though, is still a thriving hub of heavy industry, pulsing with the throb of heavy machinery. And it remains grimy, soot blackened and with pockets of degradation and poverty largely ignored by the wealthy middle classes. But there are motor cars on the street, and the police have telephones. Other things are stirring, too. Not all women are content to remain second class citizens, and pressure is being put on politicians to consider giving women the vote. Sometimes this is a peaceful attempt to change things, but other women are prepared to go to greater lengths.

This small but increasingly vocal movement provides one of two plot threads in what is, to my mind, Chris Nickson’s finest novel yet. Prime Minister HH Asquith and his Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone are due to visit Leeds, and it will be Harper’s task to make sure that the visit passes off peacefully. He knows there is likely to be a protest from unemployed men whipped up by anarchist Alf Kitson, but his greatest fear is that a demonstration led by suffragette Jennie Baines will provoke more intense publicity. At this point, it is essential to point out the difference between suffragettes and suffragists. The latter have the same aims as the former, but they are avowedly peaceful in their methods. Harper’s wife Annabelle is a suffragist. She has worked for women’s rights for many years, and has passed on her zeal to their teenage daughter Mary.

The parallel thread in The Molten City begins when Harper receives an anonymous letter:

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As he uses his local knowledge and that of his older officers, Harper begins to piece together a jigsaw. As the picture begins to take shape, it is clear that it is one that contains elements of tragedy, greed, desperation – and downright criminality, and that solving the puzzle will bring joy to no-one. As the past players in this old drama start to realise that the past is catching up with them, anxiety leads to violence,and violence leads to murder.

There are so many dazzlingly good elements to this novel. Nickson, like many of his readers is someone of the twentieth century, and he has a keen eye and ear for little social mannerisms that certainly struck a chord with me. As Annabelle imagines her husband in a Chief Constable’s uniform, she says:
You’d look a right bobby-dazzler.”
Only those of us who were brought up having their tea made in a pot will remember this gesture:
“She felt the side of the teapot and poured herself another cup.”
Teenagers were as hungry in 1908 as they are today, but few sit down with their parents at a set table and have their meal:
“She’d already cleaned her plate right down to the pattern and was working her way through the suet pudding.”

Tom Harper is still fit, active, and able to handle himself in a scrap, but like Tennyson’s Ulysses who laments tho we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;” he is all too aware of the passage of time:
“And it was a detective’s job to follow every possibility. That was what his old boss, Superintendent Kendall, had instilled in him when he was starting out in CID. Another one who was dead now; Harper had filled his shoes at Millgarth. Billy, Kendall, so many others …very soon the dead in his life would outnumber the living.”

Nickson orchestrates the dramatic disorder – based on real events – of the Prime Minister’s visit with panache and the skills of a born storyteller. We know – as does Harper himself – that finding the truth about the child stealing will benefit no-one alive or dead, but he is a policeman who must do his duty while being all too well aware that the truth is frequently uncomfortable.

The Molten City is published by Severn House and is out now. If you want to find out more about Chris Nickson and his books, then click the image below.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best historical crime

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I have always been a fan of historical fiction and, more recently, crime fiction set ‘back in the day’. Sadly, there are those writers whose thirst for period accuracy produces lavish costume drama at the expense of a decent plot and good storytelling. Happily, the five books on my 2019 shortlist don’t fall into that trap – take a look, and if you haven’t read them yet, do so – you won’t be disappointed.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 19.34.11The Familiars by Stacey Halls was one of the publishing successes of 2019, and rightly so. The evocative visual presentation was matched by superb writing and the conviction of a natural storyteller. The story is not a conventional crime mystery, but involves suspicion, injustice, intrigue, political chicanery and personal bravery. We are in rural Lancashire in the early years of the seventeenth century and young Fleetwood Shuttleworth has been married off to a wealthy landowner. Far away in London, King James is obsessed with a fear of witches and daemons, and those anxious to please His Majesty are falling over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty. Fleetwood’s new home, Gawthorpe Hall, sits under the looming Pendle Hill, and all around the district, harmless old women – and some not so old – are being rounded up as witches. Fleetwood is under pressure from husband Richard to provide a male heir and when, after several miscarriages, she seeks the help of a young peasant midwife, Alice Gray, her actions put her in direct conflict with the King’s men.

thg-coverChris Nickson’s historical novels may be narrow in geographical scope – they are mostly set in Leeds across the centuries – but they are magnificent in their emotional, political and social breadth. In The Hocus Girl, we meet Simon Westow who earns his living as a thieftaker. In America they still have them, after a fashion, but they call them bail skip tracers, or bounty hunters. Leeds in the 1820s had no police force except inept and frequently infirm Parish Constables, and so thieftakers pursued criminals on commission from victims of crime. Westow has a formidable ally in the shape of a teenage girl called Jane. Sexually abused as a youngster, she is ruthless and streetwise, and God help the man who mistakes her for a waif. Westow and Jane have a different kind of fight on their hands here, as they try to prevent a campaigner for social justice being sent to the gallows by political conspirators.

tsm-coverSW Perry has written an excellent thriller about religious extremism, media manipulation and political treachery. The fact that The Serpent’s Mark is set in Elizabethan London rather than 2019 can only make the reader wonder at how little things have changed. Nicholas Shelby is a physician who, despite his relative youth, has served on the battlefields of Europe and has emerged from a debilitating period of alcoholism caused by the tragic death of his wife and child. With many a real life character – including Robert Cecil and John Evelyn – making an appearance, Shelby becomes involved in a desperate affair which seeks to supplant Queen Elizabeth herself with a hitherto unknown child of Mary Tudor – and return the land of Gloriana to the old faith, Roman Catholicism.

night-watch-coverFor all that the era was in my lifetime, the 1950s may just as well be the 1650s given the gulf between then and the modern world. In Nightwatch David C Taylor takes us back to New York in 1954, and we follow a convincingly tough and hard-nosed NYPD cop, Michael Cassidy, who becomes involved in a case which is way, way above his relatively humble pay grade. There were many former Nazis who escaped Nuremburg and had vanished into the ether by 1954 and although many of them were undoubtedly bastards, the sinister folk in American intelligence agencies gave them a lifeline by making sure that they became their bastards. Awkwardly for the CIA, there were also survivors of Hitler’s death camps who had made their way to America, and although they may have been scratching a relatively meagre living, they still had access to information and a burning desire for revenge. Cassidy battles both the indifference of his bosses and the unwanted attention of some very powerful people as he tries to solve a series of murders and make his streets a little less mean.

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Click the text image above to link to my review of The Mathematical Bridge.

THE HOCUS GIRL . . . Between the covers

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I redt was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Britain had anything like an organised police force. The Hocus Girl is set well before that time, and even a developing community like Leeds relied largely on local Constables and The Watch – both institutions being badly paid, unsupported and mostly staffed by elderly individuals who would dodder a mile to avoid any form of trouble or confrontation. There were, however, men known as Thieftakers. The title is self-explanatory. They were men who knew how to handle themselves. They were employed privately, and were outside of the rudimentary criminal justice system.

THG coverSuch a man is Simon Westow. He is paid, cash in hand, to recover stolen goods, by whatever means necessary. His home town of Leeds is changing at an alarming rate as mechanised cloth mills replace the cottage weavers, and send smoke belching into the sky and chemicals into the rivers. We first met Westow in The Hanging Psalm, and there we were also introduced to young woman called Jane. She is a reject, a loner, and she is also prone to what we now call self-harm. She is a girl of the streets, but not in a sexual way; she knows every nook, cranny, and ginnel of the city; as she shrugs herself into her shawl, she can become invisible and anonymous. Her sixth sense for recognising danger and her capacity for violence – usually via a wickedly honed knife – makes her an invaluable ally to Westow. I have spent many enjoyable hours reading the author’s books, and it is my view that Jane is the darkest and most complex character he has created. In many ways The Hocus Girl is all about her.

T redhe 1820s were a time of great domestic upheaval in Britain. The industrial revolution was in its infancy but was already turning society on its head. The establishment was wary of challenge, and when Davey Ashton, a Leeds man with revolutionary ideas is arrested, Simon Westow – a long time friend – comes to his aid. As Ashton languishes in the filthy cell beneath Leeds Moot Hall, Westow discovers that he is treading new ground – political conspiracy and the work of an agent provocateur.

The books of Chris Nickson which are set in the nineteenth century have echoes of Blake contrasting England’s “green and pleasant land ” with the “dark satanic mills”. Yes, scholars will tell us that this is metaphor, and that the Blake’s mills were the churches and chapels of organised religion, but a more literal interpretation works, too. By the time we follow the career of Tom Harper, all the green has turned black, and the pounding of the heavy machinery is a soundtrack which only ceases on high days and holidays. Simon Westow, on the other hand, half a century or more earlier, sees a Leeds where twenty minutes walk will still find you a cottage built of stone that is still golden and unblackened by industrial soot. There are still becks and streams which run clear, uncoloured by cloth dyes and industrial sludge. Just occasionally – very occasionally – there is an old woman still working on her hand loom, determined and defiant in the face of mechanised ‘progress’.

“Up on a ridge, a large steam engine thudded, powering a hoist. A single stone chimney rose, belching out its smoke. No grass anywhere. The land seemed desolate and wasted, people by miners in pale trousers ans waistcoats, blue kerchiefs knotted at the neck. Women and children bent over heaps of coal, breaking up bog black chunks as they sorted them.

This was progress, Simon thought as he watched. It looked more like a vision of hell on earth.”

I red am not sure if Nickson would have been battling with the Luddites as they fought to hold back mechanisation. He is too intelligent a writer to be unaware that the pre-industrial age may have had its golden aspects but life, for the poor man, was still nasty, brutish and short. His anger at the results of ordinary people being sucked into cities such as Leeds to be set to work tending the clattering looms and feeding the furnaces is palpable. Chris Nickson is a political writer of almost religious intensity who, paradoxically, never preaches. He lets his characters have their hour on the stage, and lets us make of it what we will. The Hocus Girl is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to put down. It is published by Severn House and is available now.

For more on Chris Nickson’s historical novels click the image below.

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THE LEADEN HEART . . . Between the covers

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England, 1899. We are in the city of Leeds and the hottest summer in living memory is taxing the patience of even the most placid citizens. The heavy industry which has transformed the quietly prosperous Yorkshire town continues to clatter and roar, while the smoke from its thousand chimneys coats everything in grime, and the air is thick with soot. Superintendent Tom Harper of the city’s police force has mixed feelings about his recent promotion. The pile of paperwork on his desk adds to the tedium, and he wishes he could be out there on the busy streets doing what he believes to be a copper’s real job.

TLHHarper lives above a city pub, the Victoria. His wife, Annabelle, is the landlady, but she is also a fiercely determined advocate of women’s rights, and she has made waves by being elected to the local Board of Guardians, a largely male-dominated organisation which is tasked with administering what, in the dying years of Queen Victoria’s reign, passed for social care. When the brother of Harper’s one-time colleague, Billy Reed, commits suicide the death is dismissed, albeit sadly, as commonplace, but Reed believes that his brother’s death is due to something more sinister, and he asks Harper to investigate.

Charlie Reed was a small time shop-keeper, but his shop was in an area where large scale commercial developments are being planned, and his premises – along with many others – have been targeted by thugs who are possibly in the pay of two wealthy – but utterly corrupt and ruthless – city councillors. Like a dog with a bone, Harper chews and gnaws away at the shrouds of secrecy with which these men have surrounded themselves, but Charlie Reed’s tragic suicide is eclipsed by a string of savage killings committed by a deranged pair of brothers who are clearly acting at the behest of the two councillors and their lawyer.

Against a background of heartbreaking poverty, where needless deaths and bureaucracy trump common humanity at every turn, Harper eventually gets to come face to face with the killers and their suave masters, but not before his family is put in peril, and his own life comes to hang from a thread.

The most chilling aspect of The Leaden Heart is that it is brutally contemporary. Town and City councillors might, these days, be seen as bumbling and pompous local jobsworths, full of piss and wind, but relatively harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, as in 1899, such people have huge power over planning applications and budgets which are in the millions. Now, as then, the corrupt and venal live among us and will, no doubt, be putting themselves up for re-election in May 2019.

The author’s empathy with the downtrodden and exploited, and his disgust at crooked councillors and unfeeling public guardians burns like an angry flame. The most haunting image in the book is of two drowned children killed, yes, by their drunken father, but also failed by their helpless mother and the rigid workhouse system. Nickson is a writer, however, whose passionate desire for social justice never impedes his ability to tell a great story and weave a dazzling crime mystery. What is more, he does the job with minimal fuss; there’s never a wasted word, a redundant adjective or an overblown description. His prose is pared down to the bone, but always sharp and vivid. I often think Nickson would have found lasting kinship with the great campaigning journalist and author GR Simms, (incidentally an almost exact contemporary of Tom Harper) whose most celebrated work is echoed in some aspects of The Leaden Heart. The book is published by Severn House and will be out on 29th March.

Regular visitors to Fully Booked will know that I am an unashamed fan of everything Chris Nickson writes. If you click on the image of the man himself, you can read other reviews and features on his work.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2018 . . . (3) Best historical crime

To read the detailed review of GREEKS BEARING GIFTS, just follow the link https://fullybooked2017.com/2018/04/01/greeks-bearing-gifts-between-the-covers/

PRIZE DRAW …Win Chris Nickson’s The Hanging Psalm

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I YIELD TO NO-ONE in my admiration of Chris Nickson and his Leeds historical crime novels, and so it is with a heavy heart that I am launching this competition to win a prize that is so gorgeous, I am tempted to assume an alias and enter the draw myself.

THE HANGING PSALM is a dark and brooding novel set in Georgian Leeds, and is a tale steeped in revenge, murder, astonishing period detail and a certain amount of social anger.

MAY I SUGGEST two small steps? First, click the blue link to read my review of The Hanging Psalm. Then, email me at fullybooked2016@yahoo.com – no need to do any more than put ‘The Hanging Psalm’ in the subject box. Alternatively, if you are a Facebook user, go to the Fully Booked Facebook page and ‘like’ the post about this competition. The image link below will take you straight there.

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PROBABLY EVEN EASIER, if you belong to the Twitterati, is to either like or retweet my daily posts about this competition. Click the little blue bird below to go the Fully Booked Twitter timeline.

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ENTRIES please by 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 30th September. The winner will be drawn from the Fully Booked digital hat, with United Nations observers present to ensure fair play. One entry per person only, please, and I will let the lucky winner know sometime on Monday 1st October.

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